Cleopatra was a tragic temptress who left a string of broken hearts up and down the Nile — or at least, that's what her enemies in Rome wanted you to think.
Now, a new biography of the Egyptian queen aims to set the record straight.
Historian Duane Roller is the author of Cleopatra: A Biography, and he tells NPR's Guy Raz that the most popular images of Cleopatra came from a smear campaign waged by Rome.
"You have to remember, the information that we have about her was written by the people who defeated her — her enemies," Roller says. "They saw her as a dangerous threat to the Roman Republic and [built] her up as this horrible woman who led men to their doom."
In fact, Roller says, while Cleopatra did have relationships with both Julius Caesar and his deputy Mark Antony, they were the only men in her life. "They were the two most important people in Rome in their era," Roller says, "so her connection with them was not purely a matter of physicality, it was a political decision."
When Cleopatra finally gained the throne of Egypt — after a lengthy struggle with one of her brothers — she took charge of a crumbling kingdom on the verge of being overwhelmed by the rising power of Rome. Forming a connection with the two most powerful Romans of the era was a sound political strategy.
Cleopatra was an able strategist and administrator, Roller says, renowned for her education. "She could read probably 10 or a dozen languages," he says. "She was famous for conducting her diplomatic business in the language of whoever she was talking to."
The queen was also a published author, writing treatises on medicine and weights and measures. "None of this would be unusual except for the gender factor. We don't have very many women in antiquity, at least as far as we know, who were this erudite," Roller says. "Except for her gender, she fits very much into the history of the period."
But Roller says her storied romance with Mark Antony was probably real. When they met, both had an agenda — Cleopatra wanted to keep Egypt strong, and Mark Antony needed the backing of all the eastern Mediterranean rulers in his fight against the assassins of Julius Caesar, who had fled east.
"So one thing Antony has to do is to summon all of the powerful people of the East to his headquarters in Tarsus, to make sure they're on board," Roller says. "Obviously one of those is Cleopatra. But clearly it goes into a personal level very quickly, and nine months later she has twins."
Now, if you've read Shakespeare or taken a history class, you know what happens next: Marc Antony breaks with Caesar's successor, Octavian, later known as Caesar Augustus, who declared war on Cleopatra. Octavian can't go after Antony directly, Roller writes, because that means civil war. So, Cleopatra proves a convenient target. Defeated at the battle of Actium in 31 B.C., Cleopatra tricks Antony into killing himself, and then joins him in death to avoid being dragged to Rome and paraded about as Octavian's trophy.
However, her famous death by asp bite is probably legend, Roller says. The bite of the asp isn't always fatal, and contemporary accounts seem to indicate that Cleopatra poisoned herself.
Ironically, once Cleopatra was gone, Caesar Augustus adopted many of her ideas about ruling. "Even the use of purple as the imperial color, because that was Cleopatra's personal color," Roller says. "So in a sense, she helped create the Roman Empire and brought about the fall of the republic. She's a central figure in all of this, there's no denying that."